Alito Confirmation Appears Likely

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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito answers questions as his wife, Martha-Ann, looks on during the fourth and probably final day of his confirmation hearings

The end wasn't pretty for Democrats. After three days of testimony, Judge Samuel Alito appears headed for confirmation to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, and already political operatives on the Hill have turned to damage control and exploitation. Around the hearing room in the Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill, Republicans are patting themselves on the back for their successful defense of the nominee, and are talking cheerfully of their expected victory on the Senate floor later this month. Democrats are licking their self-inflicted wounds, trying to figure out if they can somehow turn the timing of that vote to their advantage. "We don't have a lot of options," says one leadership aide.

After Alito's wife, Martha-Ann, broke down in tears yesterday, things fell apart for the Democrats. Advocacy groups opposed to Alito began criticizing the performance of the Democratic Senators in the hallways. And even Democrats publicly concede their side failed to mount an effective attack on the judge. "It was a missed opportunity," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. This morning, Democratic attempts to target Alito's positions on abortion and civil rights got no more traction than before, and even Alito's concession that justices need "the ability to revisit" controversial cases, like Roe v. Wade, failed to provide usable ammunition for his opponents.

Senator Joe Biden of Delaware was frustrated enough in an appearance on the Today show Thursday to suggest scrapping hearings altogether. "The system's kind of broken," Biden said. By the time three witnesses from the American Bar Association took the floor to explain why they had given Alito the ABA's highest possible rating, Democrats could already see the writing on the wall. The final blow came when a panel of seven current and former judges from the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals lined up to praise their colleague on the bench. Vermont's Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, effectively conceding defeat, declined even to ask them a question.

Democrats are expected to ask for a delay in the Judiciary Committee's vote on the nomination, scheduled for next week, putting off a full floor debate in the Senate until the week of January 23rd. That will give advocacy groups time to target Alito with ads. It will also put the confirmation vote closer to President Bush's State of the Union address Jan. 31, something Democrats would have preferred to avoid. The best the Democrats can say about the hearings now is that they're glad so few Americans were paying attention.